Disparities on length of incarceration sentence based on gender, race/ethnicity, and age.

Criminal Justice

Disparities on length of incarceration sentence based on gender, race/ethnicity, and age.


Various studies have been conducted over the years on the disparities in sentencing within the criminal justice system in the U.S. The occurrence of discrimination or disparity is when substantially different sentences are given to offenders who commit the same crime and their criminal histories are comparable (Wang et al., 2013). There have been factors that have been commonly identified to influence sentencing decisions such as legal variables that deal with aggravating and mitigating circumstances regarding offense and extralegal variables that deal with demographic as well as individual characteristics. There have been statistics that have shown that the Hispanics and African Americans are the people who are likely to be sentenced to incarceration sentences compared to whites although they do not commit most of the crimes.

Additionally, compared to older offenders, statistics show that younger offenders are likely to receive harsh sentences (Doerner & Demuth, 2014). Also, there is a likelihood of males being sentenced to jail time or prison compared to females. Nevertheless, it is hard for researchers to rely on a single explanation as to why there is an occurrence of these disparities despite court and prison statistics remaining constant over time. There is a utilization of sentencing guidelines for judges in many states attempting to lower the bias occurrences in sentencing decisions. This is a vital issue to the criminal justice system of America since there is a compromise in justice when there is a stray in sentencing from a fair and unbiased method of dealing with the criminal offenders in the country.

There is need for special attention among scholars on sentencing discrimination as a way of finding disparity patterns as well as coming up with solutions for resolving the matter. Therefore, this essay discusses the disparities on sentence length by focusing on gender, race/ethnicity and age.

Literature Review

Race of the person sentenced

There has been emergence of sentencing guidelines which has been an important innovation of policies in criminal justice. Sentence lengths in different states are handled differently in regards to race. Wang et al. (2013) argues that there are still questions that exists on whether the adoption of sentencing guidelines by states reduces disparities that exist on sentences regarding race and ethnicity. A study by Bushway and Piehl (2007) used cross jurisdictional data focusing on Maryland and Washington and found out that there is inadequate information on how disparities on sentences regarding race and ethnicity are handled in different states.

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Feldmeyer & Ulmer (2011) used USSC’s Standardized Research Files between the years 2000 and 2002 to study the minimum period of the sentence of the federal defendant in a prison. They assessed whether the decisions made by the federal sentencing were influenced by the racial/ethnicity in federal court districts. The findings indicated that compared to Whites, Black defendants received somewhat longer sentences while Whites and Hispanics received similar sentences. Nevertheless, the findings indicated that the relationship between race/ethnicity and sentence length tends to vary across different federal districts. There is no significant conditioning of Black sentence lengths by the district Black population in contrast to racial threat predictions. On the contrary, based on the racial threat theory, when Hispanic defendants account for the smallest share of the population, between 1 to 3%, they tend to receive the harshest sentences. Therefore, it seems that whites receive shorter sentences compared to Blacks and Hispanics although the sentence lengths vary in different states.

Gender of the person sentenced

When it comes to gender, most of the studies indicate that the female offenders are likely to receive shorter sentence length compared to the male offenders. Fernando Rodriguez et al., (2006) studied gender differences in criminal sentencing. The sampling method entailed randomly selecting a large sample of convicted Texas offenders who were from a project conducted in the states on sentencing practices. OLS and logistic regression analyses showed the likelihood of sentence length and imprisonment by looking at both the crime type and gender. The findings indicated that the crime type had an effect on gender sentencing although it was not consistent and could not be predicted. For crimes such as drug offending and property, there is a less likelihood to sentence females to prison and if sentenced, the sentences are shorter. This is also the same case with violent offending whereby their sentences are shorter than that of males. Additionally, Doerner & Demuth (2014) carried out a study to determine whether women are treated leniently in matters gender and sentencing in federal courts. They used data from the United States Sentencing Commission (2001-2003) to investigate the role played by gender in the sentencing of defendants. The findings indicated that the sentences given to females were more lenient than that of their male counterparts. The gender differences can be affected by legal factors to a large extent although after legal characteristics have been controlled, there is still a significant gap in the sentencing outcome that remains. Notably, not all legal and extralegal factors weigh equally for male and female defendants when there is a separate examination of male and female defendants.

Age of the person sentenced

In regards, to age of a person and the sentence length, there are no clear findings on the relationship according to various studies although most studies indicate that older people tend to receive less harsh sentences compared to the younger people. Steffensmeier et al. (1995) examined the differences in age and its relationship with sentencing by using Pennsylvania data between 1989 and 1992. They distinguished the outcomes of sentence length by basing on two stages of sentencing that were critical on length term and whether to imprison. The findings indicated that the sentences for the older offenders were lenient with ages 21-25 being the peak ages for receiving the harshest sentences followed by 26-29.  Young offenders age 18-20 received sentences on par with those at their thirties and early forties while lenient sentences were given to offenders in their 50s and 60s. On the contrary, Wu & Spohn (2009) conducted a study and wanted to find out whether the age of an offender has an effect on the sentence length. They used the Meta analytic review and the findings showed that the offender’s age did not have an effect on the length of sentence and that the relationship between age and sentence length are weak. Generally, Wu & Spohn (2009) argues that there have been conflicting and inconclusive results on the research relating to age of the offender and sentence length. There some studies that conclude that there is an inverse relationship between age and sentence length, while others indicate there is a positive relationship and others show that there is no significant impact of age on the differences on sentence length.


Bushway, S. D., & Piehl, A. M. (2007). Social science research and the legal threat to presumptive sentencing guidelines. Criminology and Public Policy, 6, 461-482.

Doerner, J. K., & Demuth, S. (2014). Gender and sentencing in the federal courts: Are women treated more leniently?. Criminal Justice Policy Review25(2), 242-269.

Feldmeyer, B., & Ulmer, J. T. (2011). Racial/ethnic threat and federal sentencing. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency48(2), 238-270.

Fernando Rodriguez, S., Curry, T. R., & Lee, G. (2006). Gender differences in criminal sentencing: Do effects vary across violent, property, and drug offenses?. Social Science Quarterly87(2), 318-339.

Steffensmeier, D., Kramer, J., & Ulmer, J. (1995). Age differences in sentencing. Justice Quarterly12(3), 583-602.

Wang, X., Mears, D. P., Spohn, C., & Dario, L. (2013). Assessing the differential effects of race and ethnicity on sentence outcomes under different sentencing systems. Crime & Delinquency59(1), 87-114.

Wu, J., & Spohn, C. (2009). Does an offender’s age have an effect on sentence length? A meta-analytic review. Criminal Justice Policy Review20(4), 379-413.

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